Government database ‘beyond rescue’

The Public Access to Legislation (PAL) project is in deep trouble and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the potential of the software used, says a well-connected source in the printing industry.

Geoff Lawn, IT manager at the Parliamentary Counsel Office, which is the client for PAL, has previously denied that the project was experiencing any technical difficulty. Computerworld has been told, however, that it still cannot accomplish fundamental tasks such as the line-numbering of the second-reading copy of a bill. This is essential for readers, including members of parliament, to find their way through the deletions and additions often done to a bill in the process of becoming law, and to cross-reference explanatory notes.

The PAL development, with Unisys as prime contractor, was begun two years ago and was originally expected to finish implementation by the end of 2002. Assuming its successful completion, it was intended that the PAL copy of statutes should become the definitive expression of New Zealand statue law.

Other charges laid against the project are that there has been an overemphasis on the format of printed pages and insufficient attention to the fact that a bill or act is a logically highly structured document. In particular the SGML markup language, which could have been used to great effect to enshrine this structure, has been used in a basic and clumsy way. “They’re only using a fraction of its ability,” says the source, who declines to be identified. SGML is a more powerful and flexible relative of the better-known XML.

A consultant retained to do quality assurance on the project 12 months ago warned the Parliamentary Counsel Office that it was going dangerously awry, he says.

The problems are not entirely technical, he alleges. Politics plays a big part in the equation, particularly bad blood between the PCO and Legislation Direct, which previously formatted legislation and put in an unsuccessful bid for the PAL project with CAP Gemini Ernst & Young. Legislation Direct could have been a valuable adviser if relations were more constructive, he says.

The PAL contract originally had a NZ$5.6 million (US$3.3 million) fixed price, but the cost has escalated to about NZ$8.2 million. Last month a decision was made to subject the project to an independent technical evaluation. At that time PCO’s Lawn said there were no technical difficulties with the project. The information given to Computerworld indicates otherwise.

The source is not convinced that the project can be rescued from its current stage, even by “throwing a lot of money at it”. Additions will not save something that needs a radical redesign, he says.

Asked about the claims, Lawn says he is “not prepared to go into detail at this stage about the project or any of the matters associated with it”. Project manager Alan Grainer at Unisys also declined to comment, referring Computerworld back to Lawn.

Selection of the independent person to do the review is “in the final stages”, Lawn says.